“But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone-he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward-and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
I think there is within us a certain desire to be fixed. Of all the broken crumbling things we collect, there is an instinctive desire to be healed. Somewhere within all of us there is a small wasteland of sins eating that unsettles us; then discomposes us slowly, slowly, slowly until we succumb to its dark erosion.
All of us struggling with ourselves, tearing at phantom hands that seem to harass us, only when we turn around, there’s nothing there but a reflection. There’s nothing there but our own ghastly images that seem bent to destroy us.
I am by no means refuting such a truth. I only serve to bring up one that is just as valid.
A sea of paper surrounds us and the hazy glow of the study lights casts a lethargic trance. We’re at Jordan’s house working on our English final. The prompt goes as follows:
Choose a collection of three American novels that point to one underlying thesis. Provide sound support and conclude with a final paper that numbers around three pages, correct formatting of course, due Monday for final grading. You may work in groups of three at the most.
As per her request, we chose three books: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and by the witness of several cups of steaming coffee, led a solemn academic vigil to determine what our grand thesis would be. Taylor was assigned to The Bell Jar, I to Of Mice and Men, and Jordan to Gatsby.
Jordan is gnawing on the end of her pencil as she annotates something within the pages of Gatsby and her long hair falls over her face. Taylor is tapping her foot and clutching a can of soda in her hands as she skims the prompt again.
Jordan and I engage in discussing how incredibly depressing the news has gotten. Taylor rolls up her sleeves absentmindedly and there is a sudden silence that fills the room.
She glances at us wondering why we stopped and then looks down at her arms. She quickly pulls her sleeves back down over the scars that adorn her wrists in angry red slashes. Angry, hateful slashes. She holds the ends of her sleeves down pulled over her wrists in her palms, defensively, a terrified defensive, “How about we just go back to the project,” she mumbles.
So we do, because we don’t have much of an alternative and feigning normalcy might defeat the suffocating silence.Taylor’s had a rough past. She tries not to talk about it much because it pains her to remember some of the stuff that happened to her, so we try not to discuss her wrists because it might hurt her more.
I break the silence first.
“Of Mice and Men is about a man named George and his friend Lennie who dream of owning their own land. George is a very strong, big guy, who isn’t very bright. They go to earn money at a ranch only then George accidently kills the owner’s wife. George panics and runs away and everybody back at the ranch plan to murder him. Only then, Lennie finds George first and kills his friend so that he wouldn’t have to suffer at the hands of the other ranch hands.”
“The Bell Jar is about a girl named Esther who becomes depressed after experiencing a bunch of messed up stuff in New York at her internship. She becomes depressed, and then suicidal, and tries to kill herself multiple times. She is sent to a mental institution where she eventually recovers but still carries the effects of her depression with her.”
Jordan is last.
“Gatsby is a man who gets filthy rich illegally in the roaring twenties and he’s obsessed with this green light he always sees at the end of the dock. He has a huge mansion and always throws these grand parties in hopes that one day the woman he first loved will wander in. Eventually he meets his first love only she’s married, but he doesn’t really care because he’s so in love with her. They get into a car crash where they hit and kill a person when the women he loves is driving and he’s in the passenger’s seat, but he covers for her so that she won’t have to take the blame. He gets shot by the vengeful husband of the person they ran over because he thinks that Gatsby killed his wife.”
“What’s the green light?”
“It’s this thing that Gatsby obsesses over. It symbolizes his dreams for the future.”
“What was his dream?”
She pauses for a second, “It was love, his first love actually. Her name was Daisy and she was his happiness.”
Then we’re all quiet again and Jordan asks if we want more food. We say sure and she heads for the door to go get some downstairs. At that moment we hear a deafening crash on the first floor and loud voices, screaming voices, a man and a woman. Jordan hurries out, shutting the door behind her. Taylor and I exchange looks. It was pretty common to overhear bits of hostile conversation at Jordan’s house, but today, things seem especially heated. The voices scream at each other, angry, attacking screams.
She returns with some bags of chips, “Sorry, things have been rough around the house lately, why don’t we head outside, it’ll be quieter there.”
She seems shaken.
So we abandon the room for a spot outside. It’s late afternoon, and the sky is streaked shades of oranges and pinks.
“You know what’s the same,” says Jordan, “Here’s what’s the same. They all fail. They never reach happiness. They’re all like Gatsby in the end, reaching for the green lights they’ll never find.”
“Never said that in the Bell Jar”
“Actually, the Bell Jar was somewhat of an autobiography and it’s most likely that Sylvia Plath committed suicide,” goes Taylor.
I remember thinking how ironic it was, all these grand novels, all so cherished, and yet they all pointed to the same defeating truth.
Jordan nods a disconnected nod as she traces circles in the grass.
“Hey, you okay?”
She nods, but the look in her eyes tells me otherwise.
“How’s your mom,” she asks me.
I pause for a second. “She’s stressed. You know, her boyfriend died a couple months back, and she needs surgery for her back.”
“Sorry about that.”
Once again, silence descended like a fog over us and filled the spaces where no words could be said.
There was a profound feeling of brokenness that surrounded us, I realized. Here we were, broken people examining the lives of fictional people who were still just as broken. Under this sun wasn’t there a single soul who was unaffected by pain? This pain that seemed to perpetuate everything it touched and left things empty, and crumbling, and dead inside.
Night was falling quickly and it was dark save the streetlights that illuminated a nearby field. We decided to go to the field, towards the light.
We lay down with our eyes looking up. Stars glistened overhead, stretching right alongside the darkness that seemed to want to swallow their glow.
Jordan speaks up with a quiet, reminiscent murmur.
“You know what my green light was? I used to tell my parents when I was young that I wanted to be a star. I use to tell them: I want to be the kind of star that people mistake for a satellite,” she points her finger towards the bright speckled heavens, “the ones that are so big that people think it’s some kind of airplane because it’s so grand, but it’s not. It’s a star, and that’s what I wanted to be” she says with a child’s smile. The big black sky above her smiles back, and the stars might’ve twinkled just little a brighter in that moment because they were performing for the little girl stuck on the ground, in her head, who wanted so badly to be where they were.
“I wanted to laugh all the time,” says Taylor. “I wanted to live every day making people happy, like a superhero that vanquished all kinds of villains,” she touches her wrists subconsciously, “When I was younger, I thought I could do anything. I really did truly believe nothing was impossible and that people were good.” Her voice wavers at the last part.
A cold breeze brushed past us and the night air trickled into my lungs, heightening my senses to an alert euphoria. Nothing but the sound of crickets disturbed our talk of green lights and the past.
I gaze at the stars above, “My dream is to live. See, there’s this thing inside of me like a trapped tiger that drives me crazy.” I trace phantom constellations in the air with my finger. “I listen to it every day pounding ferociously, trying to free itself. And I have a feeling that it’s going to kill me or drive me to live; live like I’m supposed to. But until then I’m here trying to walk the line between brilliance and insanity”
Once more, silence overtakes us, but this time it’s not a sad silence that swallows up words of comfort. This time, it is a silence that is the music for our words to dance, to bask in the light of the stars that run right alongside darkness until forever.
Here by the witness of the black sky, spotted with light, we held vigil to search for the parts of us that we had lost and to catch them and love them again.
Alongside the ghosts of Gatsby and Plath and George we stood professing our dreams and joined the ranks of humans who had once stood under this same sky and done the exact same thing.
What was this strange capacity for wishing, for dreaming? What was it that allowed us to bravely drive out all traces of brokenness and keep on hoping, that inspired such unshakeable strength but just for a second?
It was cruel; it really was, for it was this feeling that caused us to continue to crash ourselves up against the sharp rocks of defeat, inevitable defeat, by death or sin or by unmentioned dark things. That moved us to crash like waves upon an empty shore only to be swept back out to sea again.
For in such moments, such brief fleeting moments, we are inspired once again to look deeper within ourselves and produce a capacity to carry on even when the torrential storms of circumstance rage, leaving nothing behind but the memories of silent screams and cries for help, of broken glass that reflects nothing but a shattered reflection.
It is these impossible moments of faith that keep us alive.
These are the moments that we remember for a lifetime, and then carry with you somewhere inside our spirit for all the time after that.